Thursday, February 07, 2013

Does the Times Want BEX to Fail?

Update:  the district put this info up at the website.   Not sure it helps entirely (especially the "we used experts") but good for them anyway.

End of Update.

Sure looks like it.

I was first aware of this with their tepid endorsement of the levies over "leadership."  It was an interesting reason because if that had been the issue, then they should have been troubled over many other levies.

Then, last Friday, on the news roundup on KUOW, I noted that they had a quick discussion of the levies (and naturally, got a lot wrong but those pundits aren't always very up-to-date on school district facts).  Eli Sanders from The Stranger came out and very stronger stated that The Stranger had endorsed them.  Joni Balter of the Times?  Not so much.  Odd, given that the Times had indeed endorsed them.

And now we have the long-awaited report from Brian Rosenthal of the Times who, even though he has been on the political beat for months, wrote this piece about BEX.

He doesn't say anything that I didn't already know, have said repeatedly but no one would listen during past BEX levies.  It is fairly damning and boy, did he get some choice statements.  It's just painful.

But while Tacoma officials are requesting about $30 million for each of the eight elementaries in their proposal, Seattle is seeking about $42 million apiece for the six it wants to build.

The considerable cost differences illustrate how widely school-construction spending varies in Washington — and how Seattle Public Schools spends far more than other school districts in the state.

Now Rosenthal does point out that Seattle has many geographic challenges when building AND they are building considerably larger than other districts.  But...

Seattle’s proposal also includes above-average spending on planning and design.

Oh.


Edward Peters, a parent and construction expert who chairs a committee that advises Seattle school officials on levy projects, said bigger buildings benefit students.

“You do the best you can with the resources you have, and Seattle’s tax base allows it to build big,” said Peters, who lives in Seattle but manages the Edmonds School District construction department. 

Oh dear.   I had no idea, after all the years of going to BEX Oversight Committee meetings, that this was how Mr. Peters viewed the levy dollars.

What does the district consultant say?

“There’s a lot of due diligence that’s been done here,” said Kirk Robinson, the Puget Sound area’s most experienced cost estimator, whom Seattle hired for the levy.

Robinson attributed the above-average pricetags to three of the five factors:

• Construction is more expensive in Seattle, he said, and the district favors long-lasting buildings that cost more up front.
But cost breakdowns provided by more than a dozen districts in the region show that Seattle’s construction costs aren’t actually above average. Many districts, including Tacoma, use $225 per square foot to estimate costs.
• Robinson also said Seattle faces above-average inflation because its levy would build schools far in the future.
But Tacoma’s construction timeline is very similar to Seattle’s, and several suburban districts aren’t far off.
• Finally, Robinson argued that Seattle’s proposed buildings would encounter unique site challenges, including a $1 million traffic light the district may be required to install outside Thornton Creek.

(As an aside, I'm with Kellie LaRue.  We need these buildings for the increasing numbers of students.  If we need street adjustments, the City should be paying for that light, not the district.)

Now, I have heard the "construction is more expensive in Seattle" line many times and yet have never been told why that is.   And "far in the future"?   Six years is far in the future?

The most painful section?

While Seattle’s proposal puts soft costs at 51.75 percent of construction costs, Tacoma and others estimate 45 percent.

Using 45 percent would lower Seattle’s costs by about $2 million per school, but Robinson said it’s not feasible.

“People do it, but I don’t know how,” he said.

He explained the costs in part by pointing to strict permitting requirements in Seattle.

But Ken Snyder, the longtime president of Graham Contracting, called permitting fees “peanuts.”

Snyder, who has built schools in Seattle and elsewhere, attributed Seattle’s high soft costs to a bureaucratic process and reliance on outside consultants. 

“They don’t exactly run things lean down there,” he said. 

The district's hired consultant has no idea how to lower costs.  Hmm.

Here was my comment:

Well, well, do we all remember the Times' somewhat skewed but favorable endorsement of the levies?
To those of us who have been paying attention, none of this is a surprise. We have been banging this drum, calling out these costs and overruns and, of course, silliness like building a rotunda in a K-8 building.

But back then the Times said anyone opposing a capital levy was a bad person and we should trust the district. That was when the Times had people in leadership THEY liked.

Interesting that, the weekend BEFORE the election date, the Times decides to release this story.

It would almost seem like the Times wants the levies to fail.

Nice job, Times.


Give the low-key (some might say anemic) campaign that Schools First is running and the slowly mounting opposition (though luckily not organized) and now the Times' odd editorial behavior, I have to wonder.

One saving grace - it's pretty late for this article which I had suspected would be a Sunday front-page article.

If you are a parent or staff member who really wants to see this pass, you might want to call or e-mail friends and relatives and neighbors and ask for their support for BOTH levies.  

22 comments:

Rufus X said...

Had just read the story on the Times site before visiting this site. A reasonable person could assume the timing of this story was calculated, not random.

Spitting mad. This is no "expose". This is throwing a grenade in the room and running away, right before ballots are due Classic shock-doctrine style. Unfortunately the casualties may be the kids in moldy, deficient, or undersized buildings. I hope the Times/Rosenthal are proud (snort).

Anonymous said...

“They don’t exactly run things lean down there,” he said.

Chickens coming home to roost?

Why shouldn't they? SPS has a Magic Beans reputation with other people's money. The Times is twisting the knife again. What else is new? I've opposed levies in the past due to SPS mismanagement and let's just say it, fraud, but we really need this one. I'm voting for both because I expect we'll have more oversight and if necessary, more push back in how this particular pot is spent than we've had in the past. Push back from the people who actually work and live in these buildings.

Mr White

D in The Darling, The Songwriter said...

Pundits? Lol! Sometimes these guys all they do is make us laugh. Are they pundits? Who assessed them, anyway?

Anonymous said...

So basically, Seattle is a unique snowflake that requires "special financing" for its schools...

right.

-VoteYesForTheKids

Eric B said...

Nice job at Fair and Balanced (tm) reporting, Seattle Times. They have time to interview several people who know a little bit about why the buildings are bigger, but can't take time to get someone from the District who can explain why we need more square feet. They talk to one contractor who thinks that Seattle could cut costs. Did they talk to anyone else?

So here's my take:
1. Contractors always think there's too much bureaucracy, particularly if the client wants to be involved. They always cry about how the extra oversight is driving up costs. That's on both government and private sector contracts. There's probably a grain of truth, but part of the extra cost is making sure the contractor doesn't cut corners.

2. Soft costs are high because we (as a broader Seattle community) insisted that the District lay off central office staff. Now they have to bring in contractors to fill the jobs that those full timers used to do. Contractors are expensive.

3. We need the space because we need the space. Special ed takes a lot of room. Computer labs in libraries mean that we need a lot of space in the library. With 650 kids in a school, we need to have space for two or three classes at a time in the library and the gym. Remember the article last week about the Bagley gym and how woefully inadequate it is? Sometimes you wonder if the reporters read their own paper.

4. We also need the space because we need flexibility in the future. As we've discussed on several NE threads, there is no more buildable vacant land in NE Seattle. The schools we have are what we are stuck with for the long haul. If we don't build enough capacity now, we will not have the flexibility to expand schools later if we need it.

5. They only mention this tangentially in the article, but virtually every new construction project also includes demolition of the old building. That's a few million bucks in extra costs right there that most districts don't have to pay.

I'm not saying that SPS can't save money on capital construction. I like Melissa's idea of having three new building designs, and the school community gets to pick one. That's a great way to build. But this article is a hit job, especially four days before ballots are due.

Anonymous said...

Don't miss the back fact that plenty of the business and ed reform set don't want Banda to succeeed. They want him to fail. If he fails they can bring in a new "top down" superintendent and get rid of a board majority they really really don't like.

A failure of BEX would be a big step in that direction, nevermind that the vast bulk of the planning did not happen on this superintendent or board's watch. And nevermind that it was Goodloe-Johnson's poor management, sleeping school board and syncophantic middle management closed schools while the community screamed that we needed more, not less, space.

This is not, however, an excuse for how the last few months have played out, especially in the northeast, where advisory committees ran amuck with little district guidance and communications with the city at large appeared to be worse than ever. Bad way to lead into this levy.

Capacity Wonk

Mary Griffin said...

This is was not a bad article. It is not bad writing, and it certainly raises some valid issues. The timing is bad. And what is concerning to me is most is that I received a message from Brian Rosenthal on January 2 that he was no longer covering education issues and was instead going to be covering the Washington State Legislature. So the question is, was this story held until this time or was the story still being written until this time.

I'm not a big conspiracy theorist, although I am quite certain that my educational viewpoints differ in many ways from the Times editorial board, but if this story was ready to go before now and it was held until 4 days before the levy vote was to take place, that certainly suggests political intent on the part of the Times, and it is extremely disappointing.

Conspiricy Theory said...

I agree with Mary. Why did Brian write this piece when he is supposed to be covering Olympia.

I can go conspiracy and think this is the beginning of a push for another entity to take over our schools.

Would really like to know who is behind this piece. If my theory is correct, I suspect we'll see stuff coming from the usual places.

suep. said...

I'm with Capacity Wonk and others on this. Yes, there are some people in this town who have not gotten over the fact that their favorite candidate for superintendent. was not chosen, and their favorite interim supt. jilted them, and their pals on the school board were ousted by Seattle voters.

This is why some of the levy detractors are couching their negative vote as a vote against district "leadership." Hypocritically, these same people, including the Times, did not decry the shoddy, indeed, scandalous "leadership" we had under the previous supts. and board members, or threaten to vote against levies then.

So yes, the timing of Rosenthal's article smells more than merely coincidental.

Another non-coincidence: in one of its various editorials of the last few weeks, the Times floated the idea of mayoral control of the school district.

That is straight out of the corporate ed reform takeover playbook and it highlights, once again, the problem these people have with that little principle on which this country was founded: democracy.

Should the levies not pass, it would be wholly disingenuous to pin the negative vote on a superintendent who has been here less than a year. Which isn't to say that the Times et al won't try.

Oh what a tangled web they weave...

Hoping for FOIA and transparency said...

I'm really hoping for some transparency regarding this story. I can't believe it just came out of the blue.

Melissa Westbrook said...

So the question is, was this story held until this time or was the story still being written until this time.

Exactly my question and Rosenthal texted me:

"Please don't do your readers a disservice by tying my story to the ed borad endorsement. No connection whatsoever."

I went back and reread what I wrote. I didn't tie the story to their editorial. I pointed out a pattern at the Times from both editorial and this story.

The fact of the matter is that this story had been researched quite a long time and ago and yet, here it is just days before the election. Rosenthal didn't make the decision but someone far up the foodchain did.

My readers are not Times readers and their ability to read between the lines serves them well.

kellie said...

I think Brian makes a lot of fair points and frankly none of them should be surprising. Seattle is more expensive and I don't think there is a home owner or a parent in Seattle that needs to have this explained. I just got three bids to have a sidewalk repaired and it was shocking!

Here are a few things that I think are worth clarifying are

1) Seattle has historically had a love affair with portables. As such, it makes sense that they are building bigger cores so that when it becomes time to add a wing or portables, the core facilities can handle it. That is a very thoughtful use of public funds.

2) Seattle has significant challenges with sped compliance. One reason for this has been lack of facilities. As schools are only required to be compliant with modern requirements when they are remodeled. Most of Seattle's aging buildings are truly challenging for Sped services. Therefore it is very likely that these NEW schools will have a significant Sped population.

3) They City is always saying it wants to help. Great! Sidewalks and traffic lights for school that amount to 3-5% of the cost of building is a great way to help. If the city absorbed all of those costs, it is more than likely that one entire additional project could be added.

4) At the moment the cost of construction is relatively very low. However, costs will increase again, being conservative on the buffer is not a stable plan.

joanna said...

I agree with those who question the timing. There maybe some legitimate concerns expressed in the times article, but the timing is suspicious. I was very frustrated when few would dare to question the supplemental levy, where I believed there was a better than usual opportunity to ask some questions. I suppose more specific questions should be ongoing, but such questions on what is almost the eve of an election for the major school levies does not provide time for a productive dialogue.

CT said...

The Stranger Slog commenters aren't having any of the no to the levy arguments. They're pretty entertaining.

Brian M. Rosenthal said...

I don’t usually dip into comment thread debates about my articles, but I think the concerns over the article’s timing are legitimate enough to warrant a response:

This story was my idea, and I finished it on Wednesday. It held exactly one day, due to space constraints (a Seattle resident was chosen as the U.S. Interior Secretary on Wednesday, taking up virtually our entire Thursday front page).

That doesn’t mean I think the timing was ideal. I don’t. I wanted to finish the story weeks ago (my goal was to finish it before the start of the Legislature on Jan. 14).

But it takes a long time to contact every Washington state school district that has run a construction levy or bond in the past five years and ask them for detailed cost breakdowns, building layouts and educational specifications for each of the new schools projects in that measure.

The state doesn’t keep a database on this stuff, so I created one myself.

It also takes a long time to consult a couple dozen local construction, architecture, design, soil and cost estimation experts for help understanding the numbers.

I wanted to get the story out earlier, but I wasn’t willing to get it out with incomplete information about this complicated, sensitive and important topic.

In other words, better late than incomplete.

And yes, I’m currently assigned to cover the state Legislature. But that doesn’t prohibit me from spending my unpaid nights and weekends researching issues that I feel are important to readers.

I did it last fall for my story on special education, and I did it again this month.

-Brian

No longer a Rosenthal fan said...

Was Brian ever at any of the BEX meetings? I don't believe Brian'a own database would create a comprehensive cost analysis of all the issues.

J said...

I commend Mr. Rosenthal for adding some background. He certainly didn't have to do that. But the timing on this article was terrible. This appears as a completely political move, especially in light of the Times' behavior in the last election. If it wasn't deliberate it was a blunder.

Melissa Westbrook said...

No one is blaming Brian but clearly he feels stung. No one said it was a bad article; it isn't.

But he sidesteps the elephant in the room that is timing.

Mary Griffin said...

I have had a conversation with Brian about this article and I do believe him. He has an incredible article output as far as I can tell and he does do special articles on his own time (and this is one.) I think if he had had his dithers and better timeliness in response to records request he would have had it out sooner.

It think it is a case of bad timing and nothing more. As he pointed out to me, if there really was some kind of political intent, it would actually have come out sooner as most people have already put their ballots in the mail.

Chris S. said...

Brian also completely missed/eliminated the nuance that Seattle has dug itself into a capacity/maintenance hole over the last decade and that the BEX levy is falls horribly short of our needs. It would be great if we could make the money stretch further and get more seats/repairs out of it. As long as the levy passes, it's good to have these issues on the radar.

Mary Griffin said...

@Chris, I think that is the unstated point. If we can get more done with the money, then we should. Perhaps elementary schools do not need high school-size-gyms. Perhaps the plans need to be made more modest. Perhaps the soft costs need adjustments. I have worked on a building committee, and when you are faced with limited money, you can get creative about how to spend it, stay under budget and come up with a building that makes sense that people are happy with. But it takes work and it takes some sense of having a limited budget.

suep. said...

I don't blame the reporter for the assignments, deadlines and print schedule mandated by his/her editors & publishers.

But I do think reporters should be aware of the political biases and agendas of their editors & publishers and try not to let their reporting be compromised by them. (Admittedly, that may be easier said than done.)